A Simple Tale of Temperature and Furniture

This document was written back in 1992 when there was this romantic rasx() vision of the starving “freelance writer.” For me, 1992 was one year after graduating college, which placed my age around 24 years old. Hah! Nevertheless this little ditty is a fascinating historical look into the ancient world of life with my mother’s decorative towel, my long gone refrigerator, a 286 and another oldie called VAX/VMS.

When I was a kid, back in the early 1970’s, my Mom and Dad had a Magnavox Stereophonic Something-Or-Other. The audio record player sat in the living room and it was huge. It was made of polished mahogany, and miniature tapestries covered the baffles of the two, large speakers inside. It was a cross between a coffin and a coffee table—one could hardly tell that it was a player unless it was in operation or if a sliding panel on top was open to reveal the gold plastic dials and the back lit panel of the tuner.

I must have thought the player looked a little like a coffin because of the bouquet of fake flowers my mother sat on top. She draped a decorative cloth over it to protect the finish from the flower pot. The player even had a large galley that could hold a considerable amount of records—the galley was accented with a courteous, little, internal lamp so my folks, in darkness, could choose the right Arthur Prysock album. Yes, that old Magnavox was state-of-the-art audio technology of the Nixon era, but this fact was secondary. At first glance, it was still a piece of furniture.

My parents provided me with a college education filled with many of the high-tech study aids exemplary of the Reagan/Bush era. My primary study aid was my computer, a little 286 clone, the centerpiece of my squalid collegiate apartment housing. Despite my parental push into the 21st century, I discovered that I retained some antiquated ideas about what is furniture and what is not furniture. I discovered that my computer was not a piece of furniture!

When I moved into my studio and set up my computer, I instinctively behaved like my mother. I was making a new home. What could possibly be wrong with placing a small towel on top of my computer? It was a pretty blue cloth. It was decorative. It draped over the system unit gracefully as it protected the surface from those black rubber marks caused by the bottom of my surge protector/monitor module. This trivial precaution against getting my computer a little dingy turned out to be a major problem that caused me to spend about 150 bucks which is a lot of money for an under-employed post-adolescent.

DEC VAX from back in the day

According to this tale, the school year was great. My computer helped me quite a bit: I didn’t have a printer but I had a modem so I wrote my papers at home and downloaded them to an on-campus VAX/VMS system where they could be “imprinted” and picked up in some unsuspecting professor’s lounge. It was heavenly, as long as I didn’t get caught eating donuts reserved for people with doctorates. Then, toward the end of the school year, my computer began to shut off. I felt that I didn’t deserve that kind of drama. I’m so close to the end!, I thought, I’ve got term papers to write!

At first I lived in denial, until the problem got so acute I couldn’t ignore it. I thought it must have been an electrical disturbance of some sort. There are basically three types of these disturbances: (i) noise, which is any unwanted signal (any AC voltage wave that is not used by the power supply) or loosely, any signal that varies rapidly between relatively low amplitudes (1 volt to 10 volts) and are superimposed on the desired wave; (ii) undervoltages, including sags, brownouts, and blackouts, which are any drop in current to the squalid apartment housing outlet that induces a voltage drop below 120 volts; and (iii) overvoltages, featuring spikes or surges, which are any increase in electric potential above our 120V norm (the utilization voltage of every American electric plug).

What could possibly be wrong with placing a small towel on top of my computer? It was a pretty blue cloth. It was decorative. It draped over the system unit gracefully as it protected the surface from those black rubber marks caused by the bottom of my surge protector/monitor module.

I looked at my refrigerator. I could look at it any time I wanted to since I lived in one room. I listened to its motor and noticed how the lights dimmed when it turned on. I must be experiencing some kind of undervoltage, I theorized. I hissed profanity at my refrigerator. It must be hogging up all the power, I supposed. “Profanity!,” I said. My surge suppresser was supposedly protecting me from overvoltages. So I decided to look into solving my undervoltage problem. The solution turned out to be extremely expensive:

For a meager living, I worked as a research assistant in a physics lab. They had an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) supporting one of the gigabyte monster 486s. A so-called true UPS would give me my own private power system that generates power continuously and independently of an AC line. This must be contrasted from a type of UPS more appropriately termed standby power supply (SPS) which do not operate until the AC line fails; hence, the SPS is known as an off-line device. Activation of the SPS may not fast enough to prevent the computer from shutting down and rebooting itself—effectively toggling the power switch. Not good, I thought. I definitely need to avoid the SPS type of UPS, I proposed.

For a minute, in my innocence, I wondered would I need one, until I found out that the thing was purchased for about 700 bucks! Such a device couldn’t possibly be for the average home user. It turns out that vendors of UPSs have the big-time LAN manager in mind as their primary customer. Looking back on it, I realize that the physics lab was Ether-netted and one peer in the network served as a 24-hour BBS of astronomical data used by people worthy of eating donuts all over the world. My data wasn’t that vital. I only wanted to protect a few word processing files.

Then, while reading up on this—borrowing the computer magazines from the lab for the night—I found that there was another difference between the SPS and the UPS: the UPS conditions the line as well as running its battery from it. The line conditioning component of the UPS acts like a buffer between the power line and the system unit. This buffer allows the computer to operate despite brownouts and high-voltage/current situations. And the good news was line conditioners are sold separately for about 150 bucks! Wow! I’ve got to get one!, I thought. So I did.

Borrowed computer magazines told me that temperature was the culprit: turning the computer off and on can cause temperature fluctuations—the computer heats and cools frequently. This causes the metals in the computer, especially the solder, to get brittle and crack—aging the hardware prematurely.

Now, preparing to happily starve to death after shorting my food budget for remainder of the school year, I was sure that the end of my problems lie in the cute, little, $150 box. I was wrong. Operating under the protection of the line conditioner, the computer still turned off! I looked at my refrigerator and apologized. “I’m sorry, refrigerator,” I said. Clearly I wasn’t dealing with an electrical line problem. The days blurred into each other as I became depressed. What could it be?, I wondered. It was a terrible feeling to be working at my computer only to have it shut off right from underneath me without warning.

Walking to and from campus, I began to notice the other people in squalid apartment housing using computers. They don’t have line conditioners!, I realized, peeking in their windows. I felt stupid and confused, especially after getting caught staring through someone’s apartment window. Then I remembered this one guy that had a fan pointed at his computer. I thought it was a little strange. The power supply has a fan in it as well. In fact, the fan is what makes the computer noisy. That low-amplitude, constant-frequency hum sure can get irritating after a few hours, I complained. Why would a guy take off the cover of his system unit and expose it to a common, household electrical fan, making even more noise? (This may be a little dangerous folks because of the remote possibility of generating static charges that could damage system components especially if air is allowed to flow directly over the hardware. People misfortunate enough to buy canned air composed of Freon TF for cleaning their system—especially the motherboard—should pay close attention here!)

I’m glad I was in my studio thinking about this because I happened to have been looking at my refrigerator. Of course, he is trying to keep his computer cool, but—since temperature wear and tear on a computer is a long-term problem—there must have been another reason why he was using an extra fan. Most college kids don’t worry about long term problems, otherwise there would be no liberal arts majors. I looked at my refrigerator once again just as the motor turned on. The lights dimmed but then I realized there must be a short-term temperature problem I don’t know about!, I concluded. My refrigerator was trying to tell me this all the time! “Thank you refrigerator,” I said. I immediately began to research the problem.

I know about long-term temperature wear and tear because I was one of those want-to-be computer nerds with cocktail dinner answers to such interesting questions as, Why does repeatedly turning a computer on and off “hurt” it? Most people, who may or may not be classy enough to be invited to a cocktail party, assume that there must be electrical or mechanical failures connected to the problem. Borrowed computer magazines told me that temperature was the culprit: turning the computer off and on can cause temperature fluctuations—the computer heats and cools frequently. This causes the metals in the computer, especially the solder, to get brittle and crack—aging the hardware prematurely.

One night I just happened to take off the cover of my system unit because another want-to-be computer nerd wanted try out her new internal modem she bought for some inflated price the bookstore on my computer since hers was being used by her roommate. (No patience. Remember: most college kids have no concept of the long-term.) I warned her about my computer shutting itself off after about twenty minutes and she said, “Twenty minutes is like forever, dude!” Hours slipped right by us, as she struggled with her modem in an attempt to call the campus library, and I discovered that my computer was still on! I immediately realized that the only different about this situation was my computer being uncovered. With the cover off the computer was simply cooler!

Buy this book at Amazon.com! Concerned about damaging the internals, I replaced the cover of my system unit. I put nothing on top of my computer assuming that I might have to remove the cover in an emergency. The power supply did not fail! I have a very conservative system unit design, a large footprint desktop case roomy enough to hold six AT cards and two XT cards so I shouldn’t have been so surprised. But I was. I was no longer depressed, as I realized it must have been the towel I was putting on top of my computer that caused the short-term “problem” I was having.

My computer was actually trying to protect itself from my stupidity. The power supply can sense the ambient temperature and cause the computer to shut off when it is above the safe level. Within the safe level, the power supply continually sends a Power Good signal to the motherboard. If this signal is not present due to system overstress or overheating, then the computer will either reset or shutdown. Power supply overheating is normally a result of an AC current dip, fortunately this feature protects the computer from an idiot like myself carried away by interior decorating.

I have heard about more artistic types of computer users painting the system unit in an attempt to make their computer more attractive. But as long as I’m not a Steven Jobs accented with Pablo Picasso I’m through with trying to deal with the aesthetic value of the computer. Now that I’m a little older (not much), I think they stand on their own—a beauty in their own right. They do not have to conform with decor. I’m not dealing with furniture. I am dealing with a solid state device coupled with precision mechanical components—I just can’t sit donuts and towels on top of it thinking it’s a small end table.

More historical comparison: this 1992 article (four printed pages), designed for formal, paid publication, today would be regarded as a simple, free Blog post! You can read the latest Blog post here at kintespace.com in the rasx() context.